Historic Slidell church burns; detectives suspect arson

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s detectives believe that a 127-year old Slidell church that burned to the ground Wednesday night was set on fire intentionally. Three other fires that erupted around the same time in the vicinity of the church were also believed to have been purposely set.

Sheriff’s detectives have identified a person of interest in the suspected arsons, said George Bonnett, a spokesman for St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain. Detectives are searching for an older male with a gray ponytail who was seen in the area around the time the fires were set, Bonnett said.

Though Slidell Light of the World is a historically black church and the man being sought is white, Bonnett said the fire does not appear to be a hate crime and is not being investigated as such.

Chad Duffaut, a spokesman for St. Tammany Fire District No. 1, said investigators found no sign of accelerants in the fires. It appeared that the arsonist just used whatever material was at hand, he said.

The church, which was built in 1886, was fully involved when firefighters arrived at the building at about 10:45 Wednesday night, said Chad Duffaut, a spokesman for St. Tammany Parish Fire Protection District No. 1, which covers most of Slidell. The structure was completely burned.

When firefighters arrived, they discovered another blaze in a tent near the church, Duffaut said. A couple of chairs had been stacked on a table and set alight, he said. It took about 30 minutes to bring the two fires under control.

The church is one of the oldest in Slidell, according to the pastor Freeman Simmons. But due to damage sustained in Hurricane Katrina, the congregation had been holding services at another location, Simmons said.

The building was unusable but efforts to repair it were underway, he said.

A dozen trucks and 27 firefighters responded to the fire, Duffaut said.

A short time after the first two fires were put out, a third fire, this one in a barn a block away from the church, was reported. Just after that, firefighters were called to a fourth fire, this one in a Ford Bronco parked behind a workshop about four blocks from the church, Duffaut said.

There were no injuries in any of the fires, he said.